Mental Health Awareness Month in a Climate of Denial

05/11/2016 02:52 pm ET Updated May 11, 2017

There is mental illness that is savage in its invasion and brutal in its takeover of the human spirit. Mental illness, including less dramatic states of depression and anxiety that can be blinding, needs respect, care, and attention.

But what if we are in a time when we talk about awareness and caring but awareness is in fact very shaky at best. What if the larger mood/context/climate on a human level is so filled with divisiveness that it is in fact part of the mental illness we are facing?

Once we are in the arena of denying major facts affecting our population, and populations all over the globe, our denial in and of itself can become a serious affliction needing attention.
Once there is actual environmental climate change provable by scientists that could conceivably be halted or combatted by combinations of awareness and effort, we are in a position to pay attention. Once we have many communities at large, including the farming and industrial resources in much of our country, who simply say "no" to the facts of climate change, we have a resistance that needs attention, urgently so. We can't fix anything whose existence we deny.

Many people, particularly the more Conservative among us, often see mental illness as malingering, as manipulation to get a buck, to get free services. On the other hand, any one of us who has weathered an episode of severe depression will tend to have more awareness, more respect and more humility. If we have seen, even as mental health clinicians, a person go to bottom without or with the use of chemical substances, or love addictions for example, we will never again deny the impact of compromise of mental and emotional functioning.

When, however, people in general cannot change focus or perspective in the midst of seeing the facts of any matter, statistically, educationally and in the flesh, we have what you might call a serious resistance. And when there is a resistance that insists on denial at any cost, we have a clinical problem that is both pervasive and alarming.

Mental health fields, have to my mind, a responsibility of addressing social issues that impinge on mental health in small and larger arenas. If there are large percentages of people who deny mental illness as worthy of attention or even being real, if we have large numbers who feel mentally ill people--either on the streets or in their homes, or in prisons, unentitled to dignified care and treatment, we need to understand the resistance to understanding and empathy. If we see on the level of climate change, an ongoing denial of evidence, this is also a resistance we need to understand.

As mental health practitioners, we can be easily seduced by a climate that in recent years intimidated practitioners who have protested the use of psychologists in the involvement in torture (enhanced interrogation techniques); as such many probably kept away from investigating or even noticing the issue. If clinicians with an affluent and smooth flowing practice should come forward to protest injustices on social levels, they might feel the danger of damaging their reputation on personal and professional levels, thereby pushing them to stay silent and remain insular. And as such they may risk remaining part of the status quo, which enlists us to have people be "happy with what is" rather than gear up for the efforts and awareness it takes to be part of individual and social change.

Mental health implies the capacity for awareness. And while it seems crucial to highlight awareness to a given social issue, it seems just as crucial to focus on the problems affecting so much of the population, which we tend to be blinded to.

This is as much a suggestion that we begin or enlarge a conversation, as it is a suggestion that we begin a field of study that has to do precisely with human resistance in the face of evidence. Scientists are getting tired too, tired of explaining the dangers of present ways of mining, and farming and fracking, and landing with their information, on deaf ears. And yet they need our help, those of us who know that as in resistance to therapy, where there is resistance to information, there are underlying reasons--fear, greed, desperation, panic etc.

When people are afraid to change, they have reasons, which also deserve respect, not pummeling with repetitions of the same information again and again. We know this: we know addicts don't change for the nagging, and that many of us in general have an allergy to being lectured.

We see in the sciences, we see from history, and we see in our imaginations, that the ways of studying and the ways of implementing information can be experimental, can be new, and can involve the energy of people who are witness to a difficulty they care about.

This is in no way to take away from Mental Health Awareness Month, or to the tragedy of lack of treatment and even abuse in correctional facilities and no doubt more. It is just to expand the field; it is to include an awareness of the responsibilities of mental health practitioners to any mental health that is compromised. It is to say that if in fact we are in the midst of a global resistance to facing up to climate change, as well as the multitude of social and economic injustices, and that we can be part of looking at options. Even in the face of awareness of mental illness, denial can win out because it distorts, and can even cancel any information at all.

As such, if we are more aware of denial and resistance to seeing what is, we might be part of greater curiosity about the why, so it becomes something we might repair. We have a whole field of developmental psychology that can help us locate how and why we are stuck, and how we might recover. Let's use it.